Night vision became generally available to rank-and-file shooters about 20 years ago. At that point, units were of a military nature, few and far between, and fairly bulky. There were a limited number of civilian units available, but these tended to be very expensive, and some of it was, to put it kindly, pretty awful. I remember being put in touch with someone who had bought a Gen1 night vision add-on unit and was keen to show it to me.
We met on a neighbouring farm where he proudly showed me his new piece of equipment. After setting it up on his .22, he gave it to me to have a look through. He told me to follow the fence line until I got to the fourth post, then follow the post down to ground level and I would see a rabbit. Clearly he had been practising with it, because I couldn’t see anything. He had a look and told me the rabbit was still there. Again I looked, with the same result. Eventually I made out a dull round whitish object, which my friend told me was the rabbit’s eye. I wasn’t overly impressed as the distance involved was about 25 yards.
Since those early days, night vision in all its forms has come on in leaps and bounds. Image intensifier tubed and digital scopes, together with thermal, have totally transformed night shooting. Pulsar, Flir, NiteSite and other manufacturers produce a bewildering choice of add-on and dedicated scopes, most of which do an excellent job after dark. Obviously some are better than others, but as to which is the best for you, much depends on your particular needs and uses.
As most will know, NV and thermal can be obtained in various forms: dedicated spotting-only equipment, scopes, binoculars and so on. Starting with the last of those three categories, personally I have yet to be convinced that for shooting purposes they are a good idea. Current models are a vast improvement over some of the earlier models, and are ideal for spotting and identifying creatures after dark, but for me they are not ideal as an accompaniment to actually shooting.
When I am out after foxes, rabbits and the like, I tend to spot with a thermal spotter but use more conventional forms of night vision for actually shooting quarry. When I spot a quarry species through the spotter then switch to the conventional night scope, I can lose track of the creature and need a quick look through the spotter to relocate it. Doing this with binoculars can be difficult, particularly when you are shooting off sticks, as you need two hands to use them. As I said, if out observing wildlife after dark, they are ideal as they are easier on the eyes, and the question of sight loss through dark adaptation isn’t a problem as it can be when using a scope. But when shooting I prefer a monocular rather than a binocular as a spotter.
Turning to scopes that can be used at night, again there is a considerable choice not only of makes, but also types. First, add-ons that use your day scope. Some fit on to the objective lens of your day scope, such as the F155 from Pulsar, which I found straightforward to use and worked well with my day scope. There are also several add-on units that attach to the ocular lens; I have used an Archer for years, and find that really very effective.
A slight word of caution here. Add-ons, in particular front-mounted ones, seem to work better with some scopes than others. This is due to the coatings manufacturers apply to the lens of their scopes. I am no expert on why this should be, but I have found that this problem seems to happen on top-end scopes more than the lower-priced models. It doesn’t mean the night vision doesn’t work; it just means they may not be quite as efficient.
If possible, try night vision before you buy. Some retailers, such as Scott Country and Night Master offer a trial system, which is ideal for those looking for any form of night vision equipment. It also pays to compare different types and makes. Many people when looking through night vision for the first time are so impressed that they can see in the dark that they assume that must be the one for them. Believe me, there can be the world of difference between different units, so if you’re thinking of entering the night vision world for the first time, spend a while checking different types out. It will pay in the long run.
When it comes to thermal equipment, you really do enter a whole new world. While what I term ‘normal’ night vision will allow you to see much of what is out and about at night, there are many occasions when, for a variety of reasons, you just won’t see everything that’s there. Tubed and digital night vision rely heavily on the infra-red source to pick up eye shine from nocturnal animals. On open ground, if creatures move, you will see them under certain circumstances, but if there is the slightest cover, or the animal is still, there is every chance you just won’t spot it. Thermal, on the other hand, works totally differently and picks up the heat signature given off by the creature. It won’t see through hedges, foliage and the like, but as long as there is a direct line of sight from the thermal to the animal, you will see that there’s something there.
There is no doubt in my mind that the thermal imager has been the biggest aid to shooting that’s become available to shooters in my lifetime. However, it isn’t perfect. Some claim it will see through fog and rain, and to a degree it will, but the picture can be so degraded that you won’t be able to use it with a good level of accuracy. Having said that, on most of the nights you are out, it will do everything you want it to. It also has many uses in daylight.
So is a thermal scope the answer to a night shooter’s prayer? Not exactly. As those who use thermal will have found out, the only downside is the vexed question of recognition. True, your thermal scope or spotter will tell you there is something out there and for most of the time, what it is, but looking (and to a degree guessing) what the animal is is a very different matter to sending a bullet towards it. I am out after dark at least four nights a week, and have been for more years than I care to remember, so am reasonably proficient at knowing what the thermal is showing me, but not infrequently, largely due to terrain or rough ground and growth, I am not the 100 per cent certain I have to be before sending a bullet on its way.
There is an answer to this problem, and that is to mix and match thermal and night vision. For many years I have used Starlight’s Archer and Longbow – the first is an add on, the second a true day-night scope. In the past when using a thermal scope such as Pulsar’s Apex or Trail, both excellent thermal scopes, I have used the Archer to positively identify what the thermal has spotted. Normally, though, I do it the other way round. I use my Longbow with a Dragonfly IR Laser to shoot with, and spot with my now elderly Quantum XD38S thermal spotter. This combination works extremely well.
So what unit do you actually buy? There are a wide range of digital NV scopes available, and Pulsar has always been at the forefront of this type of equipment; perhaps one of their best known has been the Digisight. This scope has come a long way since it first appeared, and like so many of this manufacturer’s products it seems to change on a very regular basis, with new features to tempt the buyer.
I have just been testing a Digisight Ultra N355 and very good it is too. My only criticism about this, and so many digital and thermal scopes, is that they are unnecessarily loaded with features that (for me anyway – younger shooters may disagree) are surplus to requirements. The ability to take photos or connect to an iPhone may appeal to some, but when I am out on my fox control business, I like to keep things as simple as possible.
There are some very expensive night vision units available, so first-time buyers should think carefully as to how and where they will use their new buy. It is pointless spending big bucks on a setup that is way too powerful for your normal usage. If you are out after rabbits with a rimfire, the Photon will do you just fine, and at a fraction of the cost of one of the bigger setups.
Most of the digital night vision available today is more than capable of allowing you to shoot out to 200 yards, which is enough for night shooting. If you contact someone like Paul at Scott Country or Tony at Night Master, you will get sound, honest advice as to the items best suited to your needs. The choice offered to night shooters today can be confusing, and in many cases there is a tidy sum of money involved, so it pays to get good advice and decide on what is suitable for your needs.
Finally, a quick word on IR torches. Again the market is awash with them, and once again it’s a case of some being better than others. Most digital night vision scopes come with their own IR torches attached; I think it would be fair to say that most of these are not outstandingly good. I would suggest that anyone looking to upgrade their IR illumination look at the Night Master Eclipse, irlightbuilds’ Sirius XT, Scott Country’s Laserluchs and Wicked Lights, and last but not least, Starlight’s Dragonfly.